On building an ATS® troupe

So you’re a teacher, and you’d like to create a troupe for your students or dance partners. How do you decide who’s in and who’s out?

FatChanceBellyDance®, as an example, famously doesn’t audition its members. Your “audition” starts the moment you walk into your first Level 1 class, and continues throughout your study. Many ATS troupes around the globe follow this model unquestioningly.

But this approach to troupe-building is deeply problematic, and as a community we need to do better. This model discourages clear communication, censures ambition and promotes dishonesty, and creates an environment ripe for gossip and discrimination.

Let’s break it down.

1. This approach discourages clear communication

In the “always auditioning” model, the guidelines for inviting new dancers into the troupe are rarely, if ever, clear – sometimes even to the troupe leader. Dancers who get invited demonstrate some combination of skill, commitment, personality, and perhaps other traits.

Because the “audition” guidelines are never shared, students are continually compared against an unclear standard. They may unwittingly fail without ever being told why. And worse, they are being tested without their awareness or consent.

Contrast this approach with the working world. The best companies encourage clear communication between managers and employees. If an employee is doing well, she knows why, so she can keep doing it. If an employee is having performance problems, the manager addresses these problems early, directly, and frequently, with the assumption that the employee is capable of changing behavior and ultimately succeeding.

Without this shared value of clear communication, the employee will fail, because she is never given the opportunity to improve.

Which would you rather have – a culture of secrecy, or open and transparent guidelines about how to get to the next level?

As a troupe leader, know this: People can’t read your mind, and you shouldn’t expect them to. ATS® as an art form involves interpreting many subtle cues, but you should never expect mind-reading.

2. This approach censures ambition and promotes dishonesty

At FCBD®, my experience was this: The moment a dancer expressed an interest in joining the professional troupe or becoming a teacher, that was the moment it was guaranteed she wouldn’t. Anyone who showed ambition was immediately painted as a “diva,” or sometimes “uppity.”

(For those not aware: “Uppity” is a deeply racially-charged word. Historically, it’s been used to disparage ambitious Black people. When you use this word to disparage someone’s ambition, you are participating in a racist dialogue. My heart sunk when I heard someone I respected describe another dancer in this way.)

This name-calling encourages dishonesty from the most advanced students. Some people are genuinely goal-oriented, and I guarantee there are dancers in your advanced classes who wish to join the professional troupe. If you discourage them from stating their goals out loud, you are encouraging them to lie to you and themselves.

Again, contrast this with the working world. At a company with a healthy culture, if I’d like a promotion, the steps to requesting it are clear:

  1. Express to my manager that I’d like to advance in my career.
  2. Ask her for help in creating a clear path forward, including skill development and opportunities to practice those skills.
  3. Actively work towards the promotion, and re-assess after a time period.

If I succeed in meeting my goals, and the company has the availability to promote me, we move forward.

Students come to dance classes for many reasons; exercise, de-stress, the atmosphere. The most advanced students are advanced for a reason: they have goals and are willing to work towards them. This motivation has to be okay if you want healthy group dynamics.

3. This approach encourages gossip

The “always auditioning” model creates an environment where troupe members are encouraged to talk about potential members. They’re explicitly invited to speculate not only on technique, but also perceived motivation, family life, and personality traits.

Because the student is participating in an audition, not a conversation, the troupe members do not discuss these things with her; they judge her solely on their perceptions. She is never given the opportunity to offer her perspective, or counter the troupe’s speculations.

This is gossip, and is unhealthy.

4. This approach promotes discrimination

We all have implicit biases. I know we’d like to think we’re judging our fellow dancers based solely on skill, but we’re human beings, and that makes us fallible.

When you as a troupe leader don’t create clear advancement guidelines, you don’t create structure to combat your implicit bias. Your troupe will wind up sharing most of your demographics, and then your implicit bias becomes entrenched and institutionalized.

I’m not only thinking about race, of course. Perhaps your professional troupe is multiracial, but is made up entirely of cisgender women over 40. Perhaps the group has people from many age groups, but none are parents. Or perhaps the group doesn’t have any members who have full-time office jobs.

Wouldn’t a greater diversity of thought create better art? The only way to create that diversity is to have clear guidelines to combat implicit bias.


All of that said, there is one benefit to the “always auditioning” model. As a troupe leader, you know that your prospective member is easy to work with and deeply skilled. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re bringing into the troupe. You may even like them. And because they’re “always auditioning,” they’re never allowed to make a mistake.

But the downsides of this approach far outweigh that benefit. Instead, if you want to build a professional troupe and a class environment with positive, healthy dynamics, look to the working world. There are companies with good, supportive cultures that encourage clear communication. Learn how they do it, and apply it to your dance life.

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On being ready to teach

Recently, a dancer reached out to me with a question: “How does one know when they’re ready to teach ATS®?”

What a doozy of a question for a Monday morning! There are so many complicating factors that have nothing to do with how good a dancer you are. But here are some initial thoughts on the matter.

1. Be able to “walk the walk.”

Being an excellent teacher requires very different skills than being an excellent dancer. But realistically, most students will never surpass the level of technique they see on your body.

So be honest with yourself about your posture and technique. Video yourself, watch the videos with an eye toward self-improvement, and be ready to continue to commit to your own ongoing education.

2. Be able to “talk the talk.”

When I started teaching in Maine, I was terrified. I spent hours with the instructional DVDs, memorizing every word, sometimes transcribing them. I hadn’t completed General Skills yet, and was very, very new. But I did bring an in-depth understanding of anatomy and other movement forms, including some knowledge of other styles of bellydance, and because I was working with a friendly community, I was supported.

You do not need to be a Sister Studio to teach ATS®. You don’t even need to have completed General Skills or Teacher Training. It is not required, and never has been. It sure does help, though.

It’s also helpful to understand anatomy, and specifically the muscles used for our posture. I also recommend gaining an understanding of the broader culture of bellydance beyond ATS®, so you can answer questions intelligently.

The most important thing, though: be ready to admit when you don’t know something. And be able to do it with grace.

3. Be ready for the “business of the business.”

You may have decided that you want to teach because you love the art form and you want to share it. That’s great! But for the vast majority of aspiring teachers, you will also find yourself running a small business, even if you don’t think of it that way.

You will all of a sudden have to deal with the reality of renting a space, marketing yourself to keep your classes full, keeping track of attendance, and handling the financial transactions. You might need to deal with practical matters that you’ve never thought about, like music licensing and liability insurance.

After a while, your students will be hungry for performance opportunities, and you’ll need to find or create them. You’ll need to coordinate costuming, or at least provide advice. You might need to create a student troupe.

You’ll need to deal with the softer skills of managing a class of adult learners, and deciding about the boundaries you’d like to have (or not have) with your students. You’ll need to figure out how to lead confidently, but with warmth.

You’ll need to make endless decisions about what you want your business to look like, and be ready to make different decisions if the first ones turn out to not be great. You might find yourself suffering from decision fatigue (yes! It’s a real thing!) and you’ll need to press on anyway.

4. Be prepared for the community’s reaction.

I was lucky; there was no one else really teaching ATS® when I started teaching in Maine, but there was a strong dance community already, and a clear interest in this art form.

You may not be so lucky. There may already be a glut of local ATS® teachers in your area. Are you prepared to work together with them? Perhaps you’ll need be flexible about the nights you teach, so you’re not in direct competition. Maybe you can commit to taking each other’s classes, or holding events together, so the community can see you’re collaborating. Support your fellow teachers.

Or maybe there’s no dance community to speak of, and you’ll need to build that from scratch. You might need to get creative about your marketing so you can attract students, and you might need to do this in an area where no one really knows or understands what you’re trying to do.

5. Be prepared to make it look easy.

Yes, there’s a lot of extra work. But the best teachers don’t place the blame on their students for this work. They don’t berate or shame their students for sometimes having other lives and not making it to class; instead, they create a positive atmosphere so that people genuinely want to show up to class and practice.

Be a destination that people want to go to, and they will.

There’s so much more; this only scrapes the surface. And ultimately, as a community we need to support people who are willing to teach and share this lovely, graceful, community-oriented art form.

I’m sure there’s more. What do you think? For those of you who are teachers, how did you know when you were ready?

(Featured photo: Carrie Meyer, The Dancer’s Eye Photography. With the delightful Bethany Maxwell.)

It’s okay to make mistakes.

In a Level One class I was teaching a few months ago, I had a new-to-me student. Let’s call her Ginny. She was excited to be in class, almost giddy. She’d taken a few classes elsewhere, and was really excited to be in class at FatChanceBellyDance®. She did a really nice job with the technique.

But when it came time to dance in formations, she balked and stood apart from her group. “I don’t understand what’s going on,” she said, “I’m afraid I’m holding them back.”

After a little coaxing, Ginny rejoined her group and went with the flow. By the end of the class she had gotten the concept of the lead change, and was smiling again. I was so very, very proud of her.

It can be really hard, learning new things as adults.

Our egos get in the way. We feel frustrated that our bodies won’t move in the same way as the teacher’s, or our fellow students’. Our brains get full and our feet won’t move in the ways we want them to move.

And we feel embarrassed with our own pace of learning. We can’t quite get a step right, or a formation change. Our own shame tells us we’re not good enough to dance with the other students, so we decide to step back rather than focus on what we’re there to do: learn.

This has happened to all of us, once upon a time. It’s certainly happened to me. I still experience that feeling sometimes, and my goodness, how incredibly frustrating: It’s so very, very hard to cultivate beginner’s mind about something when you’re supposed to be good enough to teach it.

Take this out of the studio for a moment: when was the last time you tried to learn something that you knew you weren’t going to be immediately good at? Me, I’m starting to do more bootcamp-style fitness classes, and BOY do I suck at ’em. I can do moderate-intensity exercise for hours in the dance studio, but ten minutes of high-intensity cardio and I feel like I’m dying. This stuff is really hard.

I’m also learning a new piece of software for my day job. I don’t understand some of the concepts that this software is based on, so when the documentation uses certain words, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Frustrating! Makes me want to throw the computer out the window.

This isn’t limited to adults, of course; I can’t tell you how hard it is to teach my favorite six-year-old to ride her bicycle when she’s so afraid of falling. But she’s got to be okay with failure if she’s going to learn anything. And so do we.

Tell me: what elements of ATS® are hard for you?

Why dancers advance faster at the Mothership

A note before I begin: I’ve seen highly skilled, beautiful dancers from all over the world. None of the following is meant to suggest that you have to be in San Francisco to be an excellent dancer. Please read this post with that in mind.

Ever wonder why the overall skill level of dancers at the FatChanceBellyDance® studio is so high?  Yes, there exist varied skill levels even within the advanced groups, but in the aggregate, the bell curve at FCBD® skews quite high.

Obviously, a huge part of it is the quality of instruction.  There is absolutely nothing like learning from the source, and being immersed in Carolena’s aesthetic.  You will improve so much faster if you learn from Carolena and her teaching staff than if you learn elsewhere.

What also lifts students up, though, is dancing with people who are more skilled than they are.  You get to pick up good habits this way, and “go with the flow” in a way that’s harder if everyone in the group is floundering.  You might pick up bad habits too, but you might even learn something from someone else’s bad habits.

Your takeaway, as a student, is this:  if you are newer, don’t be afraid to practice with people who are more experienced than you from time to time. That’s the fastest path to learning.  You’re not dragging them down; it is in part their job to help lift you up.

Don’t be obnoxious about it, of course, by acting entitled to their attention.  Try not to be clingy, or the biggest personality in the room.  But if you approach someone with humility and friendliness, they may be more than willing to partner with you.

If you are a more experienced student, allow some energy (and it does take energy!) to partner with those less experienced than you. Don’t let them latch on to you — you need to improve your skills too, by dancing with people at or above your level — but remember that everyone was there once, even you.  Come to Level 1 as often as possible, both to refine your own technique and to be a dance partner for the newer students.  You may also surprise yourself, and deepen your own technique by observing what the newer students are doing (wrong or right!) and why that might be.

And here’s a bonus: if you’re patient, you may find that you’ve helped cultivate a wonderful dance partner in a few months or years.

(To be clear:  I’m talking about a class setting, where we’re all working on our technique together.  Performances are a different story, of course – when there is an audience to consider, we add another variable into the mix, and the considerations are very different.  More on that in another post.)

Bottom line: Everyone gets better, faster, if we all invest in each other.

An update: someone pointed out to me on Facebook that this post could be interpreted as saying that only the original FatChanceBellyDance® studio can produce high caliber students.

That’s not what I meant at all by this post. I want to make it clear that the overall gist of what I’m saying is not that only the Mothership can produce good dancers. Rather, I hope it’s clear that I’m saying dancers advance faster when their fellow students help lift them up. And that can happen in other places, for sure.

It’s also a call for the teacher, removed from the FCBD® studio, to invest in herself and her continuing education, so that she constantly improves.  Luckily for you, Carolena and Megha have just launched Sister Studio Continuing Education and Advanced Teacher Training programs!  There are some other new programs too, to help you improve even if you’re remote.  Please go check it out.